Hilton On Johnson: “I don’t think we fully realize his talent”

This is the seventh and final story in a series that reflects the success of Jimmie Johnson in NASCAR from those who were on the ground during Hendrick Motorsports’ dominant era. Johnson has returned to the industry as a Legacy Motor Club stakeholder and will run select races in 2023.

The early part of Jimmie Johnson’s career in NASCAR didn’t offer many hints of what was to come. Johnson was an unproven talent when Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon signed him, and for the longest time, the only thing Johnson was known for was crashing his Xfinity Series car at Watkins Glen and, after climbing out of the cockpit, standing on the roof with his arms raised.

“Then he came along with Rick and Chad Knauss and all of a sudden, this 48 is in the garage, and it won’t take long for it to become a player among the organizations and very talented drivers,” NASCAR chief advisor Mike Helton tells RACER. “So you’re thinking, OK.”

Helton is constantly amazed at those who can recognize talent in a person when it has not fully revealed itself. Gordon and others saw talent in Johnson as he was climbing the ranks, and put him in the No. 48 Chevrolet and paired him with Knauss, who was completely unproven even though Knauss had a year of Cup Series experience under his belt as crew chief.

“Then the whole industry would get to see Jimmy, and the chemistry between him and Chad was evident early on,” Hilton says. “And then he started winning — winning championships, winning many championships, winning three championships in a row, and after having a sixth championship, I don’t know if anyone really thought they could get a seventh championship, but he did. I think that’s all there is to it.” It takes, because there were so many individual races that he was kind of flat out and out early, but as driver, pit crew, Chad Knauss, head of the car, figured out how to stay in the game and, for the most part, it was winning.

“That’s the heart and soul of what we do. We run long-distance races almost every weekend. Five or four hundred miles or 500 laps. In the world of motorsport, we have a lot of miles in one event, and Jimmie was a strategic driver who fit in well with a strategic organization. I don’t know how long it will take for the NASCAR family, fan base and industry to fully appreciate his ability, even after all the wins and championships. I don’t think we fully recognize him as the talent he has; it may take a while.”

Johnson has spent his career under the watchful eye of Hilton, who served as NASCAR’s president from 2000 until 2014. However, Hilton hasn’t gone too far and is still visible in the garage in his current position.

Johnson was viewed by Hilton as an off-the-radar guy even as he won 83 races and seven championships. Equipment aside, Johnson could put on a show on the racetrack, and Helton was as amazed as anyone.

“He did it at an age when there were a lot of other talents, so it wasn’t like it was just an opportunity for him,” Hilton says. “He went out (and succeeded) like Jeff Gordon did in his day and Dale [Earnhardt] Did the father of his time or Tony Stewart. I think part of his talent and ability was reading what was going on on the racetrack and what part of the race they were in.

“It was kind of like David Pearson and Bill Elliott. Where did he come from at the end of the race? Where was he all day? That’s the strategy a guy like Jimmy has when he has to get on the wheel and accomplish what he needs to achieve… He had that The second and third wind he can withdraw from.”

Johnson takes on Tony Stewart in Phoenix in 2014. Hilton points to the fact that Johnson was able to dominate in an era when the field was deep with talent. Russell Labonte/Motorsport Pictures

Johnson’s team needed 10 races before entering victory lane for the first time in 2002 and in contention for the championship late in the season. Johnson never won Rookie of the Year — which went to Ryan Newman — but the foundation was quickly built for continued success.

In addition to seven championships, Johnson has achieved 16 consecutive multiple-win seasons. The last three years of his career finally saw a downturn when he went winless and missed the playoffs for the first time in 2019 – his 18th full season.

During his first ten seasons, Johnson finished no worse than sixth in points; A stretch that includes five consecutive championships. No matter the cars, the rules, the match format or the schedule, Johnson and his team can’t be slowed down.

Helton laughs when he’s reminded that some have accused NASCAR of making changes to try and stop Johnson’s reign of terror.

“It speaks to Hendrik’s organization and Chad Knauss’ ability to do the things he does, but it certainly speaks volumes about the talent of Jimmy Johnson because we never made the changes to affect anyone,” says Hilton. “(It was) to improve the sport or fix things that don’t need to be part of the sport. But the most talented athletes can adapt to whatever is thrown at them. And as you think about the changes NASCAR might make from year to year or maybe over the course of two years, think about All the changes that the driver has to interact with and think about during the race itself You think of all the different moments during those races that the driver has to adapt to and read and locate in that moment and adjust properly.

“Jimmy made mistakes all the way down the line, but so did every other seven-time champion we have, and every other good driver will make mistakes. You’ll have wreckage, rip things up, crash into people. You’ll do the things you want to go back to and do again. But for the most part, Jimmy was able to read the moment and adapt to it, and that goes for every race he runs, every time we might make changes across the board in the garage.”

Watching the Johnson dynasty unfold is a good sport, Hilton said.

“Because a franchise or dynasty or iconic athletes isn’t that, well, maybe he’s going to have a good day, maybe he’s not,” Hilton says. “Those teams or those individuals, every single day, we expect that they’re going to be a great player or in our case, a driver. What Jimmy did very quickly — and I’d say very quickly the first four or five years of his career — set out in the morning race as a contender for the day consistently. Then support it by winning and championships.”

Fans have been joining the bandwagon all the way, hoping to see Johnson continue to win. Others are tired of seeing his success.

Helton (pictured with Johnson in 2008) laughs off suggestions that NASCAR changed the rules to try and break the No. 48’s dominance, insisting that Johnson and the team were simply better at adapting to change than their competitors. Motorsport Pictures

“But that’s the nature of the sport, and that’s the nature of our sport,” Hilton says.

Watch Hilton Johnson grow up in NASCAR. Johnson entered the Cup Series as a 26-year-old and matured into a champion, married, and had children. A “cool individual” Off the racetrack, according to Hilton, Johnson puts on a helmet and becomes a great race car driver.

“This whole package is special and unique,” says Hilton.

Aside from his success, Johnson has been praised for being good to NASCAR in terms of how he represents himself and the sport. It’s hard to find someone who would say Johnson isn’t a good person. Not only did Hilton agree, but he praised Johnson for trying other forms of motorsports when he left NASCAR.

But Helton and NASCAR are thrilled to have Johnson back in the stock car family as a Legacy Motor Club owner and part-time driver.

“It means a lot; it’s a big statement,” Hilton says of Johnson’s return. “If you watch the last few years and see Brad Keselowski join Roush Fenway and become part of the ownership package, you’ll see what [Earnhardt] Jr. worked with JR Motorsports, Kyle Busch with his racing team separate from his driving career, Kevin and Delana [Harvick] When they had their truck teams driving.

“That being involved in the sport other than being a race car driver sends a big message to the entire NASCAR industry that this is my sport, I’m a part of it, and I want to contribute to it because it’s been good for me. You want to stay involved in it.”

“A lot of drivers, and there’s nothing wrong with that, are going to go away, and you’ll never hear from them unless we celebrate them in the Hall of Fame or something. But guys like Tony Stewart and now Jimmy Johnson, Dale Jr., Brad Keselowski, and those drivers who help Other drivers being able to take their chances is a huge positive statement for us.”

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